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Notre Dame Fall Sports Preview: Cross Country

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last in a five-part series on, spotlighting the 2009 Notre Dame fall sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish men’s and women’s cross country teams. Previews of the other Notre Dame fall sports are available at the following links: Women’s Soccer, Men’s Soccer, Football and Volleyball.

The Irish men’s and women’s cross country teams had strong seasons in 2008, catapulting them to the NCAA Championships. But that taste of success only left them hungry and wanting more in 2009.

Notre Dame’s men finished second at last year’s BIG EAST Conference Championships and fourth at the Great Lakes Regional meet. After earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Championships, the Irish capped off their season with a 19th-place finish at the national meet.

The Irish men lost just one senior to graduation, but three-time cross country All-American Patrick Smyth left behind a pair of big shoes to fill. Smyth won the Great Lakes Regional individual crown for the second straight season and finished 10th at the NCAA Championships a year ago, the best showing since Kurt Benninger’s eighth-place performance in 2005. The Salt Lake City, Utah native was the first Irish runner to earn multiple cross country All-America honors since Ryan Shay and Luke Watson in 2001 and the first three-time honoree since Mike McWilliams in 1993.

Despite the loss of Smyth, head coach Joe Piane has faith in this year’s squad. “We don’t have that stud up front like we did with Patrick, but we’re returning our other six NCAA competitors from last year. They’ll definitely have to step it up this season, but I believe they can,” Piane said.

Leading that pack is senior Jake Walker. The Ellwood City, Pa., product earned his second all-BIG EAST honor last year after finishing 13th at the league meet. He finished 44th at the Great Lakes Regional and 76th at the NCAA Championships.

The Irish will also benefit from the veteran leadership of fifth-year senior Daniel Clark. The Jackson, Mich., native earned his first cross country monogram a year ago, while finishing 36th at the BIG EAST meet, 30th at the Great Lakes Regional and 152nd at the national contest.

A strong group of junior runners also return for the Irish. Dan Jackson provided several key performances for Notre Dame, including an 18th-place finish at the BIG EAST Championships. He finished his sophomore season with a 28th-place showing at the Great Lakes Regional and a 74th-place finish at the NCAA Championships.

After winning the National Catholic individual crown to begin his season, Paul Springer finished 17th at the BIG EAST Championships. He also crossed the line in 67th at the Great Lakes Regional and 189th at the NCAA Championships.

Roscoe, Ill., native Ryan Jacobs competed in six races for the Irish a year ago. He finished 29th at the BIG EAST meet, 57th at the Great Lakes Regional and 185th at the NCAA Championships.

Joe Miller leads a strong group of sophomores into the 2009 season. Miller earned all-BIG EAST honors a year ago with a 14th-place finish at the league meet. He wrapped up his freshman season with a 20th-place showing at the Great Lakes Regional and a 134th-place finish at the NCAA Championships.

Piane and the Irish also have several more experienced runners returning in 2009. Juniors Spencer Carter and Ryan Gamboa each competed in three races a year ago, while sophomores Jordan Carlson and Kelly Lynch gained valuable experience during their freshman campaign. Carlson finished 45th at the BIG EAST Championship.

A talented group of freshmen will join the Notre Dame squad this season, including J.P. Malette, who recently competed for his native Canada at the world cross country championships.

“All of our guys have been working really hard over the summer. Everyone is coming to campus healthy, so we’re looking forward to getting this season started,” Piane said.

On the women’s side, five of the top seven runners return, including all-BIG EAST honoree Lindsey Ferguson. After making their first NCAA Championship appearance since 2005, the Irish women are hoping their success from last season will carry over to the ’09 campaign.

Lost to graduation are ESPN The Magazine/CoSIDA Academic All-District selection Becca Bauman, Byron V. Kanaley Award winner Heidi Rocha and Emily Wauford.

Senior Lindsey Ferguson won the National Catholic Invitational title and finished in the top 15 at both the BIG EAST and NCAA Great Lakes Regional meets, helping Notre Dame return to the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2005.

Ferguson, along with fellow seniors Beth Tacl and Molly Sullivan, will lead the Irish women this season. Ferguson won the National Catholic women’s crown, before finishing 13th at the BIG EAST Championship and 10th at the Great Lakes Regional meet. She finished off her junior season with a 99th-place finish at the NCAA Championships.

Tacl finished 45th at the BIG EAST Championships, 36th at the regional meet and 204th at the national competition. Sullivan competed in three meets for the Irish a year ago.

Notre Dame will also look to an experienced junior class for leadership this fall. Marissa Treece won the Valparaiso Invitational title, before finishing second, behind Ferguson, at the National Catholic meet. She closed out her season with a 20th-place BIG EAST finish, a 14th-place showing at the Great Lakes Regional and a 122nd-place performance at the NCAA Championships.

“Lindsey and Marissa were our two top runners last year, so we’ll definitely look to them for leadership and experience,” women’s head coach Tim Connelly said. “We’ve also got Beth Tacl and Rachel Velarde back, so we’re in pretty good shape there.”

Abby Higgins took advantage of her year of experience as a freshman, finishing 39th at the BIG EAST Championship and 49th at the Great Lakes meet. She capped off her sophomore season with a 193rd-place finish at the NCAA Championships.

Fellow juniors Theresa Cattuna and Erica Watson got three meets under their belts for the Irish a year ago.

A large sophomore class will also help the Irish down the stretch in ’09. Velarde made an immediate impact during her freshman campaign, competing in six races for the Irish. The Albuquerque, N.M., native finished 34th at the BIG EAST Championship, 34th at the Great Lakes Regional and 155th at the NCAA Championships.

Eight other sophomores ran at least one race for the Irish last season, including Alissa Ott who won the National Catholic JV title.

Junior Marissa Treece joins Ferguson in forming a potent 1-2 combination at the top of the Irish lineup, coming off top-20 placements at both the conference and regional meets in 2008.

“We had several student-athletes that were on the edge of being in that top seven or eight last year, so we’re hoping they can come in and step up,” Connelly said.

An exceptional freshman class joins the Irish this season led by Illinois state mile champion Rebecca Tracy and Arizona high school standout Jessica Rydberg.

The 2009 schedule will provide strong competition for the Irish as they make another run to the NCAA Championships.

Notre Dame opens their season Sept. 4 at the Valparaiso Crusader Open, before returning to South Bend for the National Catholic Championships and the Notre Dame Invitational.

For the 30th consecutive year, Notre Dame will play host to the National Catholic Championships. This year’s meet will be held Sept. 18 at the University of Notre Dame Burke Golf Course. Started in the fall of 1980, the meet features teams from prominent Catholic institutions throughout the United States. The Notre Dame men have claimed 19 titles, including a run of 10 straight from 1995-2004. The women’s race was added in 1984 with the Irish women claiming the last seven consecutive team crowns and 15 overall.

On Oct. 2, the Irish will host the 54th running of the Notre Dame Invitational at the Burke Golf Course. The Invitational, one of the nation’s oldest and largest intercollegiate cross country meets, was started by former Irish head coach Alex Wilson in 1956 and regularly features runners from approximately 60 schools around the country. The women’s race was added in 1987.

This year’s Notre Dame Invitational will feature several cross country powers, including Washington, Arizona, Arizona State, Fresno State, New Mexico, Tulsa, Florida, Florida State, Penn State, Providence and Syracuse. The race will also feature multiple Midwest schools, including Michigan and Michigan State.

“The Notre Dame Invitational is shaping up to be a great meet this year,” Piane said. “We’ve got some great out-of-region teams coming in, as well as several strong Midwest schools.”

The Irish will head to Terre Haute, Ind., on Oct. 17 for the Pre-National NCAA meet, followed by the BIG EAST Championships on Oct. 31. The league meet will make its first-ever trip to the Midwest, as the ’09 race will be held in Kenosha, Wis. The Irish hope to capitalize on the Midwest home advantage and improve on their finishes from a year ago. The Irish men were the ’08 runners-up, while the women finished sixth.

Notre Dame will make the short trip to Bloomington, Ind., Nov. 14 for the Great Lakes Regional meet. Both the Irish men and women finished fourth at the regional contest last season.

The NCAA Championships will be held Nov. 23 in Terre Haute, Ind. The Irish earned at-large berths to the national meet last season, with the men finishing 19th and women coming in 29th.